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Venice Film Festival: Gallery vs. Theater Film

Still from Shirin Neshat's Women without Men

The Venice Film Festival is still under way as I write this article. This is not the Oscars, folks! It isn’t an award ceremony but an eleven-day long fest of movie premieres. There are a few awards at the end, but it is all about seeing and talking about cinema. Friends who had attended the festival told me about watching five or more movies in one day. Crazy, I thought, only to find myself a few days later watching Michael Moore’s "Capital" at 8:30 in the morning and going all day, add beach and food breaks, ending it up with a short movie at one a.m. in a neighbor island. The festival is not Cannes-glitz either but the red carpet is there and the fans too.

The screaming was particularly high-pitched the other day when I walked by, George Clooney anyone? But it is rather intimate and easy going around there. Security was impressive, plenty of big-suit-earpiece types. Cameras are a big no-no, sorry no star pictures for you. Despite the hoopla, it is not hard to watch premieres with the director and cast present. This may include treats such as singing happy birthday to Werner Herzog or watching Oliver Stone hand-in-hand with Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan ruler. The strength of this festival resides in the high quality and diversity of the entries. The experience of watching new films with the highest projection standards is breathtaking. Then, there is the hanging out where opinions are exchanged and shaped. However, the parties weren’t as accessible and good as at the art biennial, bummer.

I am not a film critic. I was here to root for a woman director to win*, then came Werner Herzog with two movies. That is when I started to ponder what differentiates video art from cinema. The distinction has been murky for a while. "Fata Morgana" by Herzog could easily be installed as video art. The video-cinema distinction got particularly muddy this summer in Venice. The art Bienniale under way since June has multiple examples of video installations, but also what could be regarded as cinema. Steve McQueen‘s "Giardini" is a simultaneous projection of two HD videos at the Great Britain Pavilion, which could be considered video art, but we are required to procure tickets, sit in a theater and view the entire work after the lights go out. Most people find the experience irritating, by the way.

Here’s the trailer for Michael Moore’s "Capital." "A perfect date movie," as he has put it.
See this for a video with a few seconds of Steve McQueen’s film setting at the Pavilion.
There are multiple films by artists competing in Venice. Artists have made films, Julian Schnabel comes to mind. Andy Warhol made about 50 movies in a few years back in the 60’s. And there was Man Ray. Peter Greenaway being here with yet another HD video essay on a painting is not surprise then. This time there are, however, several video artists coming to the film world. Read the schedule and despite the tiny print and you’ll find "Pepperminta" by Pipilotti Rist, an 80-minute film competing in the Orizzonti (Horizons) Section of the competition. This is the section for emerging directors, keep reading and you will encounter the Iranian transnational Shirin Neshat competing with her film "Zanan Bedoone Mardan (Women without Men)" for the Big Kahuna Prize (Leone di Oro in Italian)! Another visual artist showing in Venice, after also showing in Cannes this year, is Tzu Nyen Ho (Singapore). His "World" showed off-site in Venice, the one a.m. film I mentioned earlier.

"Warhol’s Cinema," 1989 BBC-TV documentary
"Pepperminta" trailer
Shirin Neshat’s "Women without Men" trailer
Tzu Nyen Ho’s "Earth"

My expectations were high. Will artists as outsiders have a role subverting the film festival? Shirin Neshat’s presence swells the number of women going for best director to…four (out of 26 films). Risky though because co-optation is fast at work. Pipilotti Rist’s film feels like an uncensored episode of "Sesame Street": infantile, strident and with episodes of drinking menstrual blood. No concessions from Shirin Neshat. Her film is visually outstanding and addresses recent historical issues in Iran close to her own family experience. It feels heavy handed by the end, but it is no doubt an outstanding film by a visual artist. Tzu Nyen Ho’s "World" is a beautiful opus but the setting didn’t help. The film showed in a small island under a full moon. While an outdoor screen was available, the projection was indoors in a rather poor setting. There were so many outstanding films, many of them exploring rather artsy approaches that the contribution from the visual artists was negligible in redirecting the film industry except for film moguls being able to claim that they are open to all challenges.

How about money? Werner Herzog has been a proponent of "small-budget films" from the beginning. Problem is that small budget for Herzog, as reported for his latest "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done" in cohorts with David Lynch is "under 10 million." Kind of scary numbers, but apparently witnessing the quality of the artist entries this year, the funding is available. Speaking of money, all the Pixar directors (Lasseter, Stanton, Docter, Bird, and Unkrich) gave a workshop rich in details. The storyboard animations were superb. "We have never done this before. The five of us telling how we do what we do. First time and maybe last…" – John Lasseter introducing the workshop and trying his best at Italian smoothness. Too bad they didn’t show up for the Q&A after running late for lunch. See John Lasseter, now at his best American dumbness, dodging a question on computer animation and children’s imagination.

How about cinema vs. video art? Any lessons learned? Distinguishing video art from cinema is a rather difficult exercise with so much gray in between what is clearly cinema and what is definitely a video installation. However, if you consider the distinction from a viewer’s perspective, there is a clear difference: the ‘theater’ vs. the ‘gallery’ setting. In the theater setting, we go to a theater, purchase a ticket, and sit through the entire movie in most cases. We expect titles, cast, posters and in America, the sound of crunching food. In the gallery setting, we walk in and out of a space with much leisure and see as much as we want of the video or video installation. The installation and space are important, we are aware of other people in the space as opposed to the effort to block them out in a theater. We concentrate on the artist’s name and there’s not much paraphernalia beyond a glass on opening night. All works of Pipilotti Rist I have seen to date are the gallery type but here "Pepperminta" was definitely going to the movies, a bad movie. If you buy this distinction, we can now concentrate on its implications.

"Forcing" the viewer to watch the entire work properly is an enticing proposal for an artist. Sort of a, let me paraphrase, "I won’t talk about a painting before I look at it for thirty minutes" as described by Richard Wollheim in "The Art of Painting." But is it worthwhile to give up the viewer’s agency in a gallery setting to create a cinema experience? I don’t think so! I just watched part of a strong full-length Israeli film yesterday, more on this next time, in a gallery setting where a mini-theater had been created. People were coming and going. I talked to one lonely guy who had watched the entire movie. No one hears the tree, but we all see it falling.

Random thoughts at the end of the summer. I have watched too many movies of late and trying to wrap up this article coherently in a café in Istanbul at midnight is difficult because the second hand smoke is not just tobacco around here. Pass along the executive summary: Keep artist films in the gallery setting! Or ask them for their funny hats at the gates of film heaven.

* PS Sept 13: Shirin Neshat has won the Silver Lion for best director. A woman artist wins! I stand corrected, keep wearing those funny hats.
The Golden Lion for best movie went to Samuel Maoz’s "Lebanon." This is the film I watched when I skipped the Chavez-Stone lovefest. All shots in the movie are inside an Israeli tank lost when invading Lebanon during the war. We see the outside world only through the gunner’s crosshair.

Jorge Misium
is an artist and part-time writer residing in Venezia, his outdoor project for OPEN’09 is currently on view in Venice.

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